StoriesPart of How to belong
Part3

When you don’t belong, you drink

As she works out where she fits in, writer Tanya Perdikou has realised her mother and grandmother’s unconventional upbringings are crucial to understanding her own story. In the third part of her exploration of belonging, Tanya unpicks the addictions that have shaped her past and uncovers the connections that make recovery possible.

Words by Tanya Perdikou|artwork by Naomi Vona

  • Serial
Artwork created by painting over the surface of a black and white photographic print with colourful paint. The artwork shows the original head of a young girl from the photograph beneath. The girl is pictured from the chest up and is smiling off to the right of camera. Apart from her head and face, the rest of the image is a painted red background covered in small yellow dots and thick purple lines crisscrossing the background. The girl's cloths are painted differently, with a light purple background, covered in orange, green and dark purple dots, linked together by straight red lines.
When you don't belong, you drink. Amanda. © Naomi Vona for Wellcome Collection.

It’s impossible to examine belonging without thinking about the people we’re closest to: how have their experiences shaped our own, and, in turn, the way we connect to the world? For me, this thought process always leads back to the same thing: addiction. Dad’s drug addiction claimed his life; his father, my maternal grandma and my mum were all addicted to alcohol. What does this say about them, and me?

Having watched my dad unravel over many years, I’m wary of drugs. I do drink alcohol, although I remain ever watchful of doing so habitually. But the influence addiction has had on my life goes much further than this. 

According to psychologist Bruce K Alexander, “Addiction is neither a disease nor a moral failure, but a narrowly focused lifestyle that functions as a meagre substitute for people who desperately lack psychosocial integration.” In Alexander’s book ‘The Globalisation of Addiction’ the terms “psychosocial integration” and “belonging” are interchangeable.

Alexander’s theory about the impact of belonging on addiction seems sound when you examine the world’s most successful recovery programmes, including the San Patrignano drug recovery community in Italy. This model sees addicts move into a commune-like environment in order to reconnect with others, themselves and society. It has exceptional long-term recovery rates of 70–80 per cent.

I contacted Mark Bitel, the founder of the UK’s first community based on this model, River Garden in Scotland, to ask him how important belonging was to their success. He told me it was essential: “Addiction is not a medical issue. It’s a social issue. It’s an issue about dislocation.”

Talking to Mark made me wonder about my own family – some dead from their addictions, some recovered. What part had belonging played in their stories?

Artwork created by painting over the surface of a black and white photographic print with colourful paint. The artwork shows a painted red background covered in small yellow dots and thick purple lines crisscrossing the background.The texture of the paint can be seen.
When you don't belong, you drink. © Naomi Vona for Wellcome Collection.

“Dad’s drug addiction claimed his life; his father, my maternal grandma and my mum were all addicted to alcohol. What does this say about them, and me?”

A faithful relationship with alcohol

Cressida Lindsay, my grandma, was born in 1930. Her parents were the writer Philip Lindsay, son of Australian artist Norman Lindsay and Jeanne Ellis, a singer and artist’s muse who, according to Grandma, was known as ‘London’s Aphrodite’.

Philip and Jeanne separated, and Grandma spent her early childhood with her mother among London’s bohemian elites, being sung to by Bing Crosby and dining at the Dorchester with Charles Laughton. This reality was shattered by World War II. Jeanne, destitute and disillusioned, suffered an alcoholic breakdown and Grandma was rehomed in a convent.

The starkest indication of how isolated Grandma felt as a child is in an unpublished memoir she shared with me before she died. In it she explains that she would spend Christmas with different host families. When, one year, a woman came to collect her who didn’t know her name, she snapped.

“It was a shock to realise that she had only come for ‘a’ child and I could be anyone; she had not come for ‘me’. I went cold inside and vowed I would never allow anyone to get to me again; I put a kind of shiny stone where my heart was and made myself invincible. The worst part of it was that even if I committed suicide there was no one to really care.”

Grandma’s reluctance to form meaningful attachments continued well into adulthood. As she matured, her most faithful relationship was with alcohol.

Simply detach yourself

When I first started work on this series about belonging, I had only planned to look at Grandma’s experiences of addiction. But when I sat down to ask Mum questions about this, she did something incredibly brave and generous, which was to offer me an interview about her own experiences of alcoholism and recovery. I was taken aback, but she knew how much it meant to me to be writing the series, and I think she felt she owed it to me. 

Mum was Grandma’s first child, born in 1952. Her father, Leon, was a Jamaican immigrant who wanted a stable home and a faithful wife. Grandma couldn’t offer these things and their relationship broke down.

Artwork created by painting over the surface of a black and white photographic print with colourful paint. The artwork shows the original head of a young girl from the photograph beneath. The girl's face is pictured close up and she is smiling off to the right of camera. Apart from her head and face, the rest of the image is a painted red background covered in small yellow dots and thick purple lines crisscrossing the background. The girl's clothes are painted differently, with a light purple background, covered in orange, green and dark purple dots, linked together by straight red lines. The texture of the paint can be seen, including the boundary between the painted area and the original photographic print.
When you don't belong, you drink. Amanda. © Naomi Vona for Wellcome Collection.

“The children at school all said, ‘Oh you know what Amanda’s Christmas will be: sitting down cross-legged on the floor, eating brown rice, chanting hippy songs.’”

While Leon remained an important part of her life, Mum chose to live with Grandma, whom she adored. She never felt she belonged with her, though. She’d be distributed with various minders while Grandma escaped. “Virtually every day I was delivered somewhere different, and I remember being utterly distraught every time she left,” Mum told me.

Mum’s sense of abandonment grew even more intense when she was uprooted from her Notting Hill home to a commune in Norfolk, where she was subjected to racist abuse.

“The children at school all said, ‘Oh you know what Amanda’s Christmas will be: sitting down cross-legged on the floor, eating brown rice, chanting hippy songs.’ I was a n*****. I was also someone who sat cross-legged and didn’t eat turkey.

“I can remember feeling horrendously alienated from my home, from everything I loved... And an answer came, like a guiding light: it’s obvious – you simply detach yourself so you can’t feel any pain any more. So I will have no relationships; nobody can hurt me; I will just be an island.”

Just like Grandma, Mum made a conscious decision to “simply detach” herself. “My mum became Cressida, not Mum, and I became impervious to the world. Theoretically, of course. It doesn’t work like that. And maybe alcohol became part of a solution when I was older. Alcohol is self-medication for detachment, denial and alienation.”

Finding another way to fit

The Cressida that neglected Amanda and had a “shiny stone” for a heart was not the Cressida I knew and loved deeply. She became a central figure in the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) community, which had aided her recovery. I remember her sitting in an armchair, phone in one hand, fag in the other, talking someone through a relapse. Her Norwich cottage was a hub for the whole family, and she loved and nurtured her grandchildren.

Mum was always determined to spare us the uncertainty and rejection she’d endured, and she did. I wasn’t aware of her drinking being a problem until after I’d left home. She explained how finding a place she belonged at AA was fundamental to her recovery: “Once you can see you are rescuable, you are worthwhile, that helps. Not being alone and a freak. Not being unworthy. Not being unworthy of being saved.

Artwork created by painting over the surface of a black and white photographic print with colourful paint. The artwork shows a light purple background, covered in orange, green and dark purple dots, linked together by straight red lines. The texture of the paint can be seen.
When you don't belong, you drink. © Naomi Vona for Wellcome Collection.

“The Cressida that neglected Amanda was not the Cressida I knew and loved deeply. Her Norwich cottage was a hub for the whole family, and she loved and nurtured her grandchildren.”

“AA is just the medium; the actual goal is to get back to family: that’s where you belong. With those who unconditionally have waited and loved and nurtured you, and done everything in their last desperate moments to help you. John [my stepdad] and you were incredibly instrumental in that. You were there, solid as a rock.”

When Mum said these words, I felt a greater sense of belonging than I had in a long time. I’m part of the reason that she’s here today. And the reason I never gave up on Mum, never judged or blamed her, was because addiction wasn’t a forbidden word in my family. One of the women I most admired in the world, my grandma, was an openly recovered addict. And I knew Dad was an addict, but I knew he was a human too – a man who wrote songs, joked relentlessly, and posted me albums by the Cranberries.

When Mum said these words, I felt a greater sense of belonging than I had in a long time. I’m part of the reason that she’s here today.

When I was in my early twenties I wrote to Grandma about something odd that happened when my sister was in terrible pain and I was called to help. The moment I saw my sister I started sweating and shaking and had to run to the loo to be sick.

“That incident is called transference and it’s a good sign,” Grandma wrote back. “It means that you are not cut off, that you are sensitive to the sufferings of others and always will be.”

I don’t know where this sensitivity comes from. Perhaps my infant mind was shaped by an awareness of Dad’s dissolution. Perhaps I was born with it. But I believe it’s at the heart of my anxiety and uneasiness in the world.

Conversely, it’s also the root of the empathy I feel for the people I love who self-soothed with substances to fill the void where belonging should be. It ties me to them, and, however complicated they may be, when I’m lost they will always be the connections that lead me back to my place in the world.

About the contributors

Photograph of Tanya Perdikou

Tanya Perdikou

Author
tanyaperdikou.com
@tperders on Twitter

Tanya Perdikou is a freelance writer. She specialises in telling stories of how the human experience intersects with society, nature and travel. Among others, her work has been published by the BBC, the Huffington Post, the Guardian and the Bangkok Post.

Photograph of Naomi Vona

Naomi Vona

Artist
naomivona.art
@mariko_koda on Instagram

Naomi is an Italian artist based in London. She defines herself as an “archival parasite with no bad intentions”. Her works combine photography, collage and illustration, and her research is focused on altering vintage and contemporary found images, creating a new interpretation of the original shots. Using pens, paper, washi tape and stickers, she gives every image new life. Her work is basically composed of three elements: her background, inspirations and subconscious, which are also the glue that pulls everything together.